The concept of ethical considerations refers to journalists’ perceptions of the appropriate responses to situations in which their actions can have potentially harmful consequences.
Journalists are required to make ethical decisions every day as they go about covering the news. Such decisions can involve whether it is okay to pay a source for information or whether it is okay to misrepresent oneself in order to gain the access needed to report a story. Indeed, journalism is often described rather pointedly as a “moral calling.”
The notion of ethical considerations covers two distinct dimensions. The first is one’s ethical orientation, or the philosophy that a journalistic actor draws upon to ascertain if something is ethical or not (i.e., moral or amoral). The second is one’s justification of controversial newsgathering practices, or how appropriate a journalistic actor believes specific techniques to be within the context of journalism.
It is important to distinguish between these ethical considerations and what journalists actually do, though the two are linked. Ethical considerations cover how journalistic actors think, which may differ from the reality of what they do, perhaps because of particular structural constraints those journalists face. Nevertheless, the dominant ethics-related ideological patterns still play a role in broadly legitimizing journalism and journalists within a society, and influence how journalistic actors self-regulate within a professional context.
The Worlds of Journalism project has examined the concept of ethical orientations by focusing on four philosophies: absolutism, situationism, exceptionism, and subjectivism.
Absolutism contends that moral rules are to be followed the same way at all times. Journalists who subscribe to this perspective are more likely to say things like, “journalists should always adhere to codes of professional ethics, regardless of situation and context.” This was the dominant ethical orientation in nearly all of the 66 countries evaluated by the Worlds of Journalism team in a series of large-scale surveys of journalists between 2012 and 2016. The countries that subscribed to this orientation most strongly included Italy, Portugal, and the United States.
Situationism argues that it is the situation that determines which solution is most ethical. Journalists who subscribe to this perspective are more likely to say things like, “what is ethical in journalism depends on the specific situation.” The countries that subscribed most strongly to this orientation included Bhutan, Moldova, and Russia.
Exceptionism contends that there are some moral rules that should be followed most of the time but it is acceptable to occasionally waive them if needed. Journalists who subscribe to this perspective are more likely to say things like, “it is acceptable to set aside moral standards if extraordinary circumstances require it.” The countries that subscribed most strongly to this orientation included the Czech Republic, Ethiopia, and Singapore.
Subjectivism posits that moral judgments should depend primarily on one’s own personal values rather than any objective code that all people (or journalists) should adhere to. Journalists who subscribe to this perspective are more likely to say things like, “what is ethical in journalism is a matter of personal judgment.” This is the ethical orientation that is least commonly subscribed to across the world, according to the Worlds of Journalism research. However, the countries that subscribed most strongly to this orientation included Oman, Qatar, and Sudan.
The Worlds of Journalism project also evaluated the extent to which a few controversial newsgathering practices were perceived to be justifiable by asking journalists to evaluate them as either always justified, justified on occasion, and not justifiable when reporting on an important story.
The practice that was seen to be most justifiable overall — that is, it was seen as being justifiable either all of the time or at least some of the time — involved “using hidden microphones or cameras.” Globally, that practice was deemed to be always justified by 10% of journalists and justified on occasion by 57% of them. It received the most approval in Latvia, Norway, and Denmark during the 2012-2016 surveys.
Another practice that was seen to be justifiable at least some of the time by most journalists worldwide was “using confidential business or government documents without authorization.” That practice was deemed to be always justified by 13% of journalists and justified on occasion by 52% of them. It received the most approval in France, Japan, and Sweden.
A third practice, “claiming to be somebody else,” received lower approval ratings worldwide. That practice was deemed to be always justified by 7% of journalists and justified on occasion by 41%. It received the most approval in China, Romania, and South Korea.
The practice of “paying people for confidential information” also received lower levels of approval. Globally, that practice was deemed to be always justified by 6% of journalists and justified on occasion by 36% of them. It received the most approval in Albania, Bhutan, and China.
Finally, the practice of “accepting money from sources” received exceptionally low levels of approval worldwide. That practice was deemed to be always justified by 4% of journalists and justified on occasion by 6% of them. The only country in which this practice was seen as being justified by the majority of journalists was Tanzania. In the majority of countries, less than 5% of journalists said it was acceptable even just on occasion.
After examining 66 countries between 2012 and 2016, the Worlds of Journalism researchers concluded there is hybridity in journalists’ ethical orientations and their acceptance of controversial practices. Put another way, although there was a broad inclination toward an absolutist ethical orientation worldwide, different countries and regions had unique combinations of absolutism with situationism, subjectivism, and exceptionism — and those combinations further intersected in different ways with proclivities toward controversial practices.
Regionally, countries in the Global North were the ones most associated with absolutism. Additionally, the researchers found that democratic and journalistic freedoms, professional values toward autonomy and independence, and the cultural value of uncertainty avoidance also played an important role in determining ethical orientations. In countries that impose fewer constraints on journalists, most journalists privilege absolutism in their ethical orientation. Adherence to subjectivism, which was the orientation least accepted by journalists, was more evident in countries in the Middle East and North Africa, where political and press freedoms are more limited, there are often greater levels of corruption, and the professional values of autonomy and independence are rated lower.
With regard to controversial practices, the relationships were less clear-cut. Journalists in countries that score higher in press freedom, and in which journalists experience greater autonomy and fewer internal pressures, tended to believe that some controversial practices sometimes associated with watchdog journalism — like using confidential documents without authorization and using hidden recording devices — were justifiable for important stories. Again, many of these are countries in the Global North, though there were multiple exceptions to that pattern. Conversely, many other controversial practices — like misrepresenting oneself, paying for sources, and receiving payment from sources — were typically found in countries with lower levels of socioeconomic development.
Taken as a whole, the Worlds of Journalism project found ethical ideologies in journalism are multidimensional and pluralistic — meaning that they are very dependent on the context. That context, in turn, is shaped by a country’s degree of press freedom, democratic development, corruption, human development, and emancipative values. This helps to explain why there are still significant differences among some countries, even as there does appear to be at least some agreement among many journalists around the globe about what it means to be an ethical journalist.
Globally, absolutism is the most prevalent ethical orientation. However, that orientation is sometimes mixed with values associated with other orientations, creating some diversity in ethical approaches.
There is considerable variation across countries in terms of support for controversial newsgathering practices. Some practices, like using hidden microphones and cameras, are seen as being justifiable at least some of the time for important stories. Others, like receiving payment from sources, are almost always frowned upon.
The degree of adherence to certain ethical orientations and support for controversial newsgathering practices is influenced by a range of factors, including a country’s degree of press freedom, professional values toward autonomy and independence, and cultural values regarding the avoidance of uncertainty.